British Columbia·Reconcile This

Rush for Indigenous hires at universities opens door to failure, impostors, say academics

Universities across Canada are feeling the pressure to hire more Indigenous faculty. But what kind of effect is this having on Indigenous scholars?

Fierce competition among institutions for Indigenous professors can lead to missteps

Linc Kesler, associate professor of English and Indigenous studies, says academic institutions should focus on Indigenous candidates with academic excellence or the university and the candidate can suffer. (University of British Columbia)

Academic institutions across Canada are feeling the pressure to add more Indigenous staff to their faculty.

To meet the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to action to close employment gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, some universities are creating new positions in their departments.

Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, for example, is hiring five new Indigenous professors, bringing total Indigenous staff to ten, or 16 per cent of the faculty.

But some fear the rapid push for Indigenous hires is leading to missteps — from bringing on scholars before they are academically qualified, to concerns that those with no connection to an Indigenous community will take spots reserved for those who do. 

'I started to feel gross'

When Métis academic Jenny Ferguson saw all the Indigenous jobs popping up across the country she jumped at the opportunity. But then she had second thoughts. 

 "I started to feel gross," said Ferguson, a visiting assistant professor of writing at Missouri Southern State University and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing Program.

Ferguson's mother is white and her father is Métis, but her paternal grandmother hid her identity to protect herself from residential school and racism. So Ferguson grew up not knowing she was Indigenous. She also refers to herself as "white-coded" for passing as white.

"These positions should go to people who are connected to their communities, people who are claimed by their communities and people who are serving their communities so that these positions can do the work to indigenize our universities," she said. 

Linc Kesler who is Oglala-Lakota and German and an associate professor of English and Indigenous studies at UBC in Vancouver, agrees it is important for academic institutions to ensure they are hiring Indigenous people with a genuine connection to their community. 

"We are focused very clearly around requirements of being able to work with communities with an understanding of community issues," he said.

Proof of Indigeneity

Like most universities, UBC doesn't require students provide any confirmation of Indigeneity other than a voluntary letter of self-declaration. 

According to Sara-Jane Finlay, UBC's associate vice-president of equity and inclusion, the university encourages search committees to request candidates to provide a 'diversity statement' to disclose information about their identity. 

"Candidates may share details of their background and self-declare particular identities, but we are not in a position to ask," Finlay said. 

Jenny Ferguson is Métis and decided that rather than applying for Indigenous positions herself, she would recommend people who had a stronger connection to an Indigenous community. (Lainie Nicolas)

However, some institutions like Vancouver Island University — which is currently working on a strategy for creating an Indigenous position — have advisory committees to guide the process.

Sharon Hobenshield, director of Aboriginal education and engagement at VIU which has a main campus in Nanaimo, says the hiring process goes far beyond a person's resumé.  

"[We would ask], where and who are the elders who have taught them, can they name the people who have influenced their lives?"  said Hobenshield, who is Gitxsan and German.

Hobenshield also says she understands the complexity of modern Indigenous identify and experiences that have been influenced by residential school and the Sixties Scoop.

'Some real disasters'

Hobenshield is also concerned that the urgent push to bring more Indigenous faculty in is being done without proper support and mentorship that some candidates may need.

Kesler agrees, saying he is seeing more Indigenous professors hired without proper credentials, some who have not yet defended their thesis, coming into a competitive environment without support.

"I've seen some real disasters come out of that as a hiring process because what it does is it tends to undermine people's concern for the actual qualifications that the person brings to the position," he said.

He says being Indigenous should not outweigh ones academic qualifications for the position. 

"If there is not a candidate who emerges as a very promising colleague, then suspend the search and search again rather than feel that you are forced into making a choice that you are not confident of," he said.

For Hobenshield, a lack of academic experience can sometimes be compensated by Indigenous community experience, as long as there is a plan for academic guidance.

"We can't just open the door, bring them in and then just leave them there on their own," Hobenshield said.

"We don't have a very strong culture of mentorship in educational institutions and that's where we have to make a shift."

To hear more on how universities determine Indigenous identity, click on the link below. 

CBC columnist Angela Sterritt speaks to mixed blood Indigenous academics about how Indigenous identity should be determined by institutions and the pressure on universities to have more Indigenous faculty members. 9:04

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.